DIY Escapes

By J. Eric Eckard. Photography courtesy of J. Eric Eckard, Twin Oaks,
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Chef Regina Charboneau’s Shrimp and Grits at Twin Oaks


Pinterest and the DIY Network have paved the way for a wave of do-it-yourself trends that have seeped into a wide swath of our society.
From hacks on how to fix a coat zipper to decorating your child’s birthday cake, rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands a little dirty has become more commonplace than ever.
And that includes travelers looking for something different while on vacation – or even locals who want a unique experience during a night on the town.
You can tee it up at a resort golf course, catch some rays on the beach or even admire some artifacts at a museum and bring back stories, suntans and amazing photos from your trip. But learning vacations allow travelers to return with something a little more substantial.
When traveling to Mississippi, you can choose between cooking your own meal, brewing your own beer, picking your own produce on a farm or creating your own masterpiece – all under the tutelage of an expert in each field.

Twin Oaks – Natchez
Chef Regina Charboneau’s take on the bed and breakfast experience allows guests to spend a weekend learning to put together a five-course meal from starter to dessert. A group of at least six can opt for Charboneau’s cooking class package, and she’ll devise a menu based on the group’s likes and dislikes.
“I’ll have everything prepped; I’ll have things chopped beforehand,” Charboneau said. “When you have a group, there are different levels of interests. There will be some who are there every step of the way, and there will be some who just want to enjoy the company.”
Charboneau said she talks more about technique and tricks of the trade than she does about the specific menu. And with her background, she’s picked up plenty to hand down to her guests/students.
She has cooked all over the world – from Paris to San Francisco to Alaska – on riverboats, in railway cars and in a wilderness bush camp. But she returned to her native land of Natchez in 2001 and bought Twin Oaks, a six-guest room home built in 1832.
Primarily it’s couples who sign up for her classes, and Charboneau said, there are many men out there who love to cook. Author of several cookbooks, she uses her recipes in most of the class menus.
Cooking starts about 4 p.m., and things are wrapped up by about 7 p.m., she said.
“Then we sit down for a nice dinner,” Charboneau said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Hops and Growlers – Biloxi
Scott Hixson has been brewing beer for almost a decade, and he opened a home brewing supply store that also features a growler filling station with 20 beers on tap.
For the first-time brewer who wants to make a batch of beer for his friends or an experienced beer-maker who wants to try a new recipe, Hixson holds classes at Hops and Growlers.
“I’ll tailor the class to the individual,” Hixson said. “I work with them one-on-one and walk them through the process. We talk about the beer they like. If they like a bock or maybe an IPA, we’ll come up with a hops bill that’s designed after that.”
In one recent class, he said, he had a novice brewer working alongside a veteran. Hixson helped them put together their supplies, including a food grade bucket and an air lock. He asks that students buy ingredients from his store.
Hixson has won numerous awards for his beers over the years, including a gold medal at the 2014 National Homebrew Competition in the German wheat and rye category.
Even though Hixson said he gets plenty of first-time brewers in his class, he estimates that maybe 75 percent want to come back and brew again.
“It really can be a lifelong hobby.” he said.

Brownlee Farms – Red Banks
If you’re looking for a fun day of harvesting your own fruits or vegetables, Brownlee Farms just southeast of Memphis offers a wide variety of produce from which to choose.
Their main crops, however, are strawberries in the spring and pumpkins in the fall. Throughout the year, depending on conditions, amateur pickers might find tomatoes, sweet corn, squash, peas, cucumbers and watermelon at the farm.
“We make our living on strawberries and pumpkins,” said Brooks Brownlee, who runs the family farm. “It’s mostly families that like to pick their own. We let people go through the fields, and they’ll take their kids out and fill up a pail. Plus, we have a big farm playground for the kids, too.”
Wagon rides, tours of the farm and a five-acre maze in the fall offer visitors more than just a chance to pick their own fruit and veggies.
Typically, strawberry season starts about the middle of April and generally lasts six to 10 weeks. In the fall, pumpkin picking season starts around the last Saturday in September and ends at the end of November.
Brownlee said most people who come for pumpkins want them for decorations during Halloween or Thanksgiving. But strawberry pickers know the difference between a farm fresh strawberry and one from the grocery store.
“You cannot replicate a farm fresh strawberry,” he said. “If you’ve never eaten a farm fresh strawberry, you haven’t eaten a strawberry.”

Painting With A Twist – Hattiesburg, Jackson/Flowood
Would-be artists walk into this studio and start with a blank canvass. Two hours later, a painter might be born.
“This really isn’t for the accomplished artist,” said franchise owner James Crowder. “It’s simplified art, mostly for a novice. We’re more about the experience. We’re about having a good time.”
The studio provides the paint and canvasses, and the guests are encouraged to bring their own food and drink. Crowder said there’s usually singing, dancing, games and contests that go along with the painting.
Crowder suggests checking the website for a specific class of interest, such as painting hydrangeas on a blue background, rustic heart or cups of love.
“We do at least one couples class once a week,” Crowder said. “And on Valentine’s Day, there’s always a big turnout. We have a kids’ class on Saturday morning.”
The first Saturday of the month is known as SOS Saturday, when artists can return their paintings for a free “fix-up” in case they weren’t happy with the final product.
“If someone is struggling during the class, I might intercede,” Crowder said. “But you want it to be as much theirs as possible. The more you come, though, the more you can learn.”
Most classes last two hours and offer a 16×20-inch canvas. For more experienced painters, Crowder’s studios offer a three-hour class with painting on a 24×36-inch canvas.
Getting away can make much more than just the physical act of traveling. With customized vacations built on personal interests, getting away takes on a whole new perspective.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.